150 years ago, on the evening of Tuesday 22nd December, 1863, a stunned Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Reed prepared to send a message that promised to send shockwaves through New York City. The commander of the 69th New York National Guard Artillery dictated the following telegram to be immediately communicated to the press:
FAIRFAX COURT-HOUSE , Tuesday, Dec. 22.
To the Associated Press:
Gen. Michael Corcoran died at half-past eight this evening, from injuries received from a fall from his horse.
Thos. M. Reed,
Lieut.-Col. Com’g. 69th Reg., Corcoran Irish Legion. (1)
Michael Corcoran was perhaps the most highly regarded Irishman in New York. A dedicated Fenian, he had been Colonel of the 69th New York State Militia and had achieved notoriety when he refused to parade his men on the occasion of the Prince of Wales’ visit to the city in 1860. His imprisonment following his capture at Bull Run, when he was held under threat of retaliatory execution by the Confederacy, led to him becoming a national hero. His eventual release and triumphant return to New York in 1862 solidified his status, and as a newly minted Brigadier-General he raised a new Union brigade, Corcoran’s Irish Legion, which had a strong Fenian membership. Now, at the age of just 36, the darling of New York’s Irish community was dead. The news was received with the ‘utmost incredulity’ by all who knew him. How did it happen? The Carrowkeel, Co. Sligo native had not died at the head of his troops fighting the Rebels, or given his life heroically in the cause of Ireland. Instead, his death was caused by an accidental fall from a horse. (2)
One of the most detailed accounts of the incident was carried in the New York Irish-American, who blamed the General’s death on an attack of apoplexy. It reported that on the morning of the December 22nd Corcoran had been feeling somewhat unwell, but decided to proceed with the days duties nonetheless. Thomas Francis Meagher, the former commander of the Irish Brigade, had been visiting the Irish Legion for a few days and Corcoran decided to accompany him to Fairfax Station, where Meagher was taking a train to Washington. Meagher was travelling to the capital to meet a group of ladies, including his wife and Corcoran’s mother-in-law, and bring them back with him to spend Christmas with the Legion at Fairfax Court-House. Corcoran set off for the train with Meagher and a small group of officers; he bid his wife farewell, telling her that he would be back for dinner in the afternoon. (3)
With Meagher seen safely to the train, Corcoran and his party rode on to Sangster’s Station to call on the Legion’s 155th New York Infantry. Here the General left orders regarding the regiment’s dispositions and defences, before turning for home. At this point one of his party, Lieutenant Edmond Connolly, noted that the General’s horse had thrown a shoe. Meagher had left his horse with them, and so Corcoran decided to ride his friend’s mount for the rest of the journey. After travelling only a few yards Corcoran turned to Connolly to tell him how magnificent the horse was, adding: ‘I understand that he is a fast horse when put to it, for he won a race on St. Patrick’s Day at Falmouth; and so let us have a bit of a race and test him.’ Meagher’s grey, Jack Hinton, had won a race during the famous St. Patrick’s Day 1863 celebrations while being ridden by Captain Gosson of the Irish Brigade- it is likely it was this horse that Corcoran was riding that day. His decision to test out the animal’s capabilities would prove a fateful one. (4)
Corcoran and his party broke into a gallop, with the General taking the lead. He appeared to lose control of the animal, an occurrence perhaps influenced by the old-fashioned English saddle that Meagher had on the horse, which provided less support than Corcoran was accustomed to. The horse charged forward, and the General waved at his companions to fall back, presumably in the hope of calming his mount. Disappearing into a dip in the road the party briefly lost sight of their commander. At about this time Corcoran’s horse apparently lunged to the left and the General was spilled to the ground. By the time his men came up the Sligo native was apparently experiencing violent convulsions. The time was a little after four o’clock; the commander of the Irish Legion was carried back to his quarters at the W.P. Gunnell House in Fairfax where he died some four hours later, having never regained consciousness. (5)
Thomas Francis Meagher returned to find his friend dead. He later described the scene:
‘There, in that very room which I had occupied for several days as his guest…he lay cold and white in death, with the hands which were once so warm in their grasp, and so lavish in their gifts crossed upon his breast, with a crucifix surrounded by lights standing at his head, and the good, dear old priest [Father Paul Gillen], who loved him only as a father can love a son, kneeling, praying, and weeping at the feet of the dead soldier.’ (6)
The men of Corcoran’s Legion, who idolized their General, were given a final opportunity to see him. Meagher continues:
‘One by one, as the sun went down, and the last rays, reflected from those mountains that had been the witness of his first trial under fire, fell upon that pale and tranquil face, the soldiers of the Irish Legion moved in mournful procession around the death-bed, and, as they took their last look at him, I saw many a big heart heave and swell until tears gushed from many an eye and ran down the rough cheek of the roughest veteran.’ (7)
Brigadier-General Michael Corcoran’s remains were taken to New York where they lay in state at the City Hall prior to his burial at Calvary Cemetery. To read more about the funeral service see a previous post here. His loss was keenly felt by the Irish across America, even by some with Confederate sympathies. One Irish Clergyman in Virginia wrote the following letter about his death:
‘…Permit me to sympathize with you in the death of our mutual friend and distinguished countryman, General Michael Corcoran. Though I differed with him on the great subject that now convulses this once happy land, though I could not endorse his acts as a General of the United States Army, still I loved him as an Irishman and a Catholic. I respected him for his devotion to the dear old land of our nativity; and in death I have not forgotten him for obedience to his Mother, the Holy Catholic Church.
I announced his death to my people on Sunday last; I spoke of him as a Christian soldier, and begged them to join their prayers with mine, while I offered the holy Mass for the repose of his soul. I can never forget the visits he paid me during his stay near this city. I needed not his star; I thought not of his rank in the army; but as the Irishman and the Catholic he was always at home with the Priest, and as such always got the “cead failtha” from me.
Our orphan children will not soon forget him: they will pray for him when, perhaps, he is not remembered by the busy world without. Their humble prayer will ascend to the throne of God for mercy on the soul of the generous soldier, who, amid the din and strife of the war, did not forget them in their hour of need…’ (8)
Michael Corcoran is today remembered by the largest American Civil War memorial in Ireland, in Ballymote, Co. Sligo. On the 19th October 2013 the City of Fairfax unveiled a historical marker dedicated to Corcoran at the site where he died. Michael Corcoran and his Irish Legion have spent much of history in the shadow of Thomas Francis Meagher and the Irish Brigade. Somewhat surprisingly he has never been the subject of a detailed biography, and his Legion have never been the focus of a published brigade history. Important work by historians such as Christopher M. Garcia is helping to redress this imbalance and hopefully will lead to further insights into this important man and his brigade in the future. (9)
* This post would not have been possible without the efforts of Dave Sullivan. Dave originally alerted me to the unveiling of the Corcoran Marker, took the time to visit the site and photograph both it and the Gunnell House for the post and also provided invaluable source material, particularly the Alexandria Gazette account of the accident.
(1) New York Times 23rd December 1863; (2) New York Irish American 2nd January 1864; (3) Ibid.; (4) New York Irish American 2nd January 1864, Conyngham 1867: 373-379; (5) New York Irish American 2nd January 1864, Alexandria Gazette 1st January 1864; (6) Cavanagh (ed.) 1892: 357; (7) Ibid.; (8) New York Irish American 9th January 1864; (9) Fairfax City Patch 18th October 2013;
References & Further Reading
Alexandria Gazette 1st January 1864. Death of Gen. Corcoran
Fairfax City Patch 18th October 2013. New Historical Marker in Honor of Soldier To Be Unveiled in Oldtown Saturday
New York Times 23rd December 1863. Death of Gen. Corcoran.; He is Killed by a Fall From His Horse
New York Irish-American 2nd January 1864. Death of Brigadier General Michael Corcoran. Arrival of His Remains in New York
New York Irish-American 9th January 1864. General Corcoran. A Noble Tribute
Cavanagh, Michael (ed.) 1892. Memoirs of Gen. Thomas Francis Meagher
Conyngham, David Power 1867. The Irish Brigade and its Campaigns